Ironman Malaysia 2017

Ironman Malaysia 2017 Race Report

By Mohd Syafei Bin Ahmad

My 3rd full distance medal, and the it is most beautiful one

It took me almost two weeks to finally sit and write this race report. I still feel the highs from the race and can’t move on from all the excitement I had in Langkawi two weeks ago. Ironman Malaysia is like an unofficial national championship for Malaysian triathletes. Almost everyone I know from the local Tri community descended on the island to battle it out for the bragging rights to finish an Ironman or finishing among the top Malaysian finishers on home soil. I would say everyone must be proud to earn their Ironman title in Langkawi. It is among the toughest Iron distance courses in the world for crying out loud. I personally took this race very seriously. My goals were to PB, complete the race in less than 12 hours and finish among the top 20 Malaysian. Going into this race I secretly marked few Malaysian triathletes I know, rename them as the world’s top athletes and pretended that we are racing in Kailua-Kona. Off course I excluded the likes of Rupert Chen, Shahrom Abdullah, Muhamad Allie Helmy and Hafiz Wong. They are on a different level.

Here are the players in my version of Kona:
·         Rafik aka Ultraman Bintang – Jan Frodeno
·         Huzaifah aka Jepah –  Sebastian Kienle
·         Razlan Razali – Cameron Wurf
·         Asyraf Zamzuri – Lionel Sanders
·         Safzan Mukhtar – James Cunnama
·         Chan Jun Shen – Ben Hoffman
·         Off course I get to be Patrick Lange, I was the scriptwriter for this play after all.

I also had my wife #HoneyBeeRacing came along with me not as a supporter, but also raced in Ironman 70.3 Langkawi on the same day. What more, we had a big contingent from Doha including my PSY Tribuddies friends, Aizal and Lolyta doing their first IMs while Latif doing the 70.3. Together with their supporters we turned Langkawi much like a local Doha race. The trip to Langkawi was made even sweeter when I had the support from my awesome support crews and dear friends.

At swim practice with some of Doha Contingent (Photo: Enaikay)
The swim was held on a two lap, well-marked (they have buoys and safety line with flags every 20m) clockwise course. The water was flat like a swimming pool. There was no jellyfish as rumored before the race and the water temperature was cool (it was a cloudy day). All is good for a fast swim. My only problems were, I breathe on my left so I still need to sight and the water was a bit murky, more of it later. With a goal to finish the swim in 1:20, I seeded myself in the 1:10-1:30 wave. I was very confident to meet the target. I have invested a lot of time to work on my swim fitness and consistently swimming around 2:00/100m pace in training. I swam 4 to 5 sessions a week and ended up with shoulder bursitis few weeks before the race.  

There were so many people not honest with themselves when they seed themselves faster than what they capable of. The whole point about rolling start was to eliminate chaos in the water and to make it safer for everyone. I came across a lot of breaststroker causing traffic congestion on the already busy swim channel. Swimming in murky water, was like driving in a thick fog. Their feet came out of nowhere kicking you on your face causing you to lost balance and rhythm. I tried my best to time my pass so I won’t get kicked but sometimes I had nowhere to go and had to swim over them.   

I could not get anyone to draft either. Everyone seems too fast or too slow. I was just concentrating on my stroke and breathing. Since I breath to my left, and the flags were on my right, I still need to sight. But every time I lift my head up, my legs sink causing imbalance. So I sight less. One problem though, because of my injury, my right hand is stronger than my left, so I kept swimming away from the buoys and zigzagging my way along the course. At one point I almost ended up on the beach of one of the islets opposite the swim course. Other than that, I was actually enjoying the swim. I can feel the sensation of swimming ‘fast’ for the first time in triathlon. I knew I swam longer than I should but I thought my fast-er swim would make up for the extra length, but that was not the case when I pressed the lap button on my watch. I finished the swim in 1:29:34. Clearly I swam a lot longer than I should. My Garmin indicated I swam 5000 m. That could not be accurate. I can’t be zigzagging for more than 1 km longer. No way. With 4:26 at T1, I was already 15 minutes behind schedule. I was the last to come out of the water in my own Kona race. It was a lot to make up for even for the Patrick Lange in me.

First out of water, NOT (Photo : Fiz Said)
Target Swim+T1 = 1:19:00
Actual Swim+T1 = 1:34:00
Delay = 0:15:00

The bike course in Langkawi is hilly. The hilliest I have ever raced on. It makes Dukhan hills feel like small bumps on the road in comparison. However, I secretly confident that all my heavy gear training will paid off. The course can be broken into three parts that we have to repeat twice. The undulating roller coaster part along Datai, the flat-ish but busy with traffic part along the north side of the island and the killer hills near Kuah. I saw Razlan aka Cameron Wurf just as I turned left into Jalan Teluk Datai from Jalan Teluk Yu. I was not expecting this at all as he is a lot stronger swim-biker athlete. I could only overtook him at KM 30 on the run when we raced together at Challenge Roth. I told him before the swim start that if I catch him on the bike, he can just stop pushing and take it easy enjoying the race. We were playing cat and mouse until the turn around before the golf course when he sped off. I wanted to response, go with him and take the risk, but I remember that Patrick Lange did not win the World Championship on the bike, so I let him go and concentrate on my effort. I saw my training buddy, Aizal making his way into Datai loop as I was going out. I knew then that he will be OK since we only worried about his swim.  I overtook Chan Jun Shen aka Ben Hoffman not long after I turned left into Jalan Teluk Yu. Strange, he did’nt look like he was suffering but he was taking it way too easy. I completed the pass after exchanging few words of encouragement with him.

Tour de Langkawi (Photo: A Yam Man)
The bike course in Langkawi was never boring. We cycled through villages, forest, along the coast and paddy fields. Then there were local kids asking you for water bottles. I found it endearing when you can make them happy with just discarding your empty water bottles. The look on their faces were priceless. The bike course was open to traffic which you need to pay attention to all the time. Nevertheless, the local traffic were courteous (most of the time anyway) and there were police and marshals at every junctions. I kept making steady progress and overtook one cyclist after another while maintaining my effort. It was fun.

Hill galore (Photo: Fiz Said)

The fun was short lived though as we turned right into Lisram highway before Kuah town and hit the first real hill. The hill has about 10% gradient and went for a kilometer. I saw Harum Delima at the start of the climb and she wasn’t look too happy. I later found that she was not having a good day and had a food poisoning. I didn’t know, I thought it was her usual game face. I climbed the hill with my biggest cog (27) and still felt heavy. My speed went from 35 kmh to 7.9 kmh and that climb felt a lot longer than 1 km. A few people even got off and pushed their bikes, I was not that much faster. What goes up must come down, and it came down at a very fast speed. Like a roller coaster, it was time to climb the next hill. The second hill was a bit easier as we carried the momentum from the first. After a short climb to the crest, it was an exhilarating experience on the descent as I took a corner at 65kmh. The third hill came soon after. This aptly named Bukit Hantu (Ghost Hill) was probably the hardest. 12% gradient change for almost 2 km. My bike almost went stationary and I was pretty sure could walk faster. Despite that, I was not ready to take the walk of shame. I was cursing as I spin up the hill and my thought was with my wife. I was worried if she could climb this hill when the biggest cog on her cassette has only 25 teeth. It turns out she was a better climber than me. Her speed climbing up this hill was 8 kmh, while I did half of that speed. 

What goes up must come down (Photo: Jack Ah Beh)
I continued on the same steady effort to the turn-around for the second lap and saw Rafik aka Jan Frodeno making his way towards Datai junction. He was just around 5 km ahead. I didn’t expect to see him this early. Then I saw Safzan aka James Cunnama not long after that. I stopped at the Special Need station to replace my Carbopro bottle after the turn around before making my way up Datai hills for the second lap. Halfway to the Datai turn around, I saw Huzaifah aka Sebastian Kienle was making his way out. He was roughly 10 km ahead. That would put me around 20 minutes behind him at T2 if the remaining of the bike remain constant. I saw another PSY Tribuddies, Lolyta looking strong and fresh as I completing my Datai loop. I have now seen everyone on my book except Asyraf aka Lionel Sanders. No surprise since you know how good Sanders is on the bike.

My second attempt on Kuah hills was even harder as all hell broke loose and sent torrential rain down. Like an eclipse it turned day into night. I hung onto my dear life and descended the hills slowly as my sun glasses were foggy and I couldn’t see a thing. I was glad it was over just before Bukit Hantu. Second time climbing Bukit Hantu, I felt my bike was heavier and I was barely moving like I had a hantu pillion rider on my bike. I even stop mid climb and check on my brake calipers but all were good. Clearly it was just fatigue. I kept it steady and finally made it to T2 right on target in 6:25:28 but did not make any ground on that 15 minutes deficit from the swim but lost another minute because I was struggling to put on my long compression socks over my wet feet.

Target Swim + T1+Bike+T2  = 7:47:42
Actual Swim + T1+Bike+T2 = 8:03:58
Delay = 0:16:60

I had 13 minutes contingency when I planned my race strategy for a sub 12 and that include 3:59:08 marathon. With almost the 17 minutes deficit, I have no choice but to run faster than 5:40/km pace I have planned and trained for. At that point I was indecisive whether to stick to my plan or take the risk. I have been patient all day and kept the tiger in me chained during the bike. I wanted that sub 12 finish so badly and I was willing to go through hell and take my chances. Like a hungry tiger, I claimed my first victim, Safzan aka James Cunnama a few hundred meters from T2 in MIEC. He looked so happy and enjoying himself. Maybe it was not a bad idea to enjoy the race, but I had a mission. I did not come to Langkawi to enjoy. I switched on my auto cruise mode, locked my cadence high at 185 spm and left MIEC quickly. It was a 2.5 lap course along the airport coastal road to Pantai Cenang. In contrast to the bike course, the run was quite boring really. I was just focusing on my cadence and make sure that my HR did not go beyond 160 bpm. I did not slow down at the aid stations either. I just grab a bottle of water and a couple of sponges and placed them in my suit, just like Patrick Lange did in Kona. I was clocking a nice pace around 5:30/km with that effort. I bumped into Perrine, my friend from Doha on the opposite direction as I was heading to Meritus at km 6. Perrine just had an accident few weeks ago when she was hit by a car while cycling and broke two of her ribs. She was not fully recovered but still decided to start. I admire her strength and tenacity. Shortly after, I saw Asyraf aka Lionel Sanders. He was around 2.5km ahead at the time and was struggling. He told me he had nausea and bloating. I fully understand how he felt. I experienced the same when I did my first IM in South Africa. It was fun running around Meritus Pelangi resort where the finish line was. It was the only place packed with supporters. I saw Hani and my support crews Adaha and Zaitun at the ceremonial tent attending the 70.3 Langkawi Roll down. Hani looked happy and excited. I knew then she had a good race because we agreed that she will only attend the roll down if she placed in the top 10.  I made my way out of Meritus and not long after, I saw Rafik aka Tomen aka Jan Frodeno and overtook him at the breakwater loop. I had hope that he will respond and came with me, but Just like the real Jan in Kona, Rafik too was showing signs of fatigue. After 11km and 9 hours of racing, I started to feel the early signs of fatigue. Should I continue with this effort or adjust my expectation. I still have 30 km to go. What if I continue pressing, hit the wall and walk the last 10 km? I then decided to break the run and walk at every aid station. I don’t know maybe it was just psychological when I saw all my competition walking and suffering.

On auto cruise (Photo: Fiz Said)

After 17 km I was back at MIEC and stop at the Special Need to grab my Red Bull where I saw one of my favourite pros, Laurel Wassner. She was struggling too. I told her to finish the race and get that Kona points. She responded and soon was running strong again. She seemed to thrive in difficult situations. That’s why she’s one of my favourites. What a strong woman she is. I was still running well and my average pace was 5:45/km even with the walk breaks at the aid stations. My ritual at every aid station was splash a dipper of cold water, drank a cup of coke or water and eat something while walking the entire length of the aid stations. While the cold splash was refreshing and helped to cool my core temperature, it caused another problem. My compression socks are now wet and soggy. I could feel blisters were brewing on the sole of my feet.  It has becoming more and more uncomfortable to run now. I saw Huzaifah aka Jepah aka Sebastian Kienle just up ahead hobbling. Looked like he was suffering with cramps. Wow Langkawi was so unforgiving. Not one was spared except maybe Romain Guillaume and Diana Riesler. Huzaifah stop at a medic tent to get a muscles spray when I passed him.  Then I caught Asyraf (Lionel Sanders) walking. He came with me but his breathing was labored. I was happy to finally have a company. The feeling when I ran side by side with him was very much like the Ironwar between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. Too bad it was short-lived. The pace was too hard for the stricken Asyraf.  I looked at my watch and my half marathon time was 2:03. I was getting more uncomfortable running with blisters and the wet socks. I removed the socks and ran sockless. It felt better; momentarily. I had sand and grits in my shoes from the beach run. They cuts through my soaked skin and blisters. Every stride was like stepping on broken glass. I tried to remain calm and ran light on my toes. Clearly it was not realistic to keep pushing now. My pace has now dropped to around 6:15/km. I bumped into Perrine again at around km 30. She was now walking with her hand pressed on her ribs. Clearly racing an Ironman with two broken ribs was too hard even for Perrine, but I had no doubt she would still made the cut off time. I continued running from one aid station to the next while ignoring the pain. The last 10 km surprisingly went by quickly. Before I knew it I was back at Meritus and running on the finishing chute. I saw my supporters and Hani was waving the Johor flag. My feeling at the time was pure joy.  I grabbed the flag and crossed the finish line in 12:28. I was a happy man. It may not be a sub 12 but I achieved the other two goals I set for myself. I had a PB in Langkawi when people said it was not a PB course and I came 14th among the top Malaysian male finishers.

Survival mode (Photo: Deorunner)
Langkawi may claimed many victims but the Doha contingent seemed to thrive. We may not have the topography but we trained in much harsher conditions in Qatar’s summer where 45-50 Celsius were a norms. I believe all the stupid hours where we woke up at 1 AM for our long rides or ran 2-3 hours on the treadmill has developed the mental strength required for the race. Perrine still did a respectable time despite her injury, Aizal did better than my first Ironman time and Lolyta has earned herself much respect and followers among our tri community. Doha Team did exceptionally well in the 70.3 race too. Dave came 6th AG and 13th overall. Hani came 7th in her AG and miss the 70.3 Worlds by 1 slot. Francis also missed the Worlds by one slot. Sam, Latif and Doaa were happy with their results while Hesham still managed to finish his first 70.3 despite not having a good day.     
We did it (Photo: Adaha)

Post Race

I have so many people to thank for. My family, my employer ORYX GTL, my very supportive friends especially Hassan and family for looking after our children while we were away and training buddies from MAD Triathlon, Triclub Doha and Team Farhana. Without them this would be impossible. I still believe that trainings and perseverance could only take you to the start line. It was the support and love from the people around you that will carry you over the finish line. Thank you thank you thank you.

Also thank you Ironman Malaysia organizer and volunteers for such a fantastic event. New friends I met during my time in Langkawi and my awesome supporters Firdaus, Da’a, Zaitun, Mimi and Ijah.

Will I be doing another Ironman race? My answer is YES in a heartbeat!

Thank you Langkawi, see you in 2018


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